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Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.
“What’s going on over there?” The question from a former NATO colleague in Europe was among the many texts and WhatsApp messages that lit up my phone Jan. 6 as I watched on live television the astonishing and frightening events unfolding at the U.S. Capitol.
The level of incredulity and concern, followed by revulsion and anger, expressed by my friends and former colleagues overseas underscores the damage that was being done to our standing abroad by a rioting mob bent on overturning an election result they did not like.
The world’s oldest and most successful democracy, which for more than two centuries had stood as an example to so many around the globe, was under attack. From within. And the attack was led by a sitting president who refused to accept that most sacred of all democratic principles: that the people, through elections, get to decide who governs.
In the end, democracy prevailed. On Wednesday, exactly two weeks after the failed insurrection, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be inaugurated the next president of the United States.
And yet, while the peaceful transfer of power will no doubt come as a relief to many, the events of Jan. 6 have left a deep scar on American democracy and on our image abroad — one that won’t be healed quickly or easily. Restoring faith in democracy and the rule of law, both at home and abroad, will be one of the most important tasks of the new president and his administration.
Biden has made the return to a foreign policy based on core American values — including support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law — a top priority. But after the events of last week, it will take more than reversing Trump’s damaging executive orders on immigration, standing by our democratic friends and allies and standing up to authoritarians or even convening a Summit for Democracy “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.”
Biden has proposed taking each of these steps, and they are all important. But they won’t mean much if we don’t also address the deep scars in our own democracy. That starts by holding to account those who challenged the outcome of the elections.
The FBI and Justice Department have set up a sedition and conspiracy task force to help identify, charge, arrest and bring to justice those who stormed the Capitol in an effort to deny the congressional certification of the presidential election. This large-scale investigation is critical to restoring the rule of law.
But so, too, is holding to account those who instigated the mob in the first place. That starts with President Donald Trump, whose refusal to acknowledge he had lost the election provided the basis for everything that followed. Conceding defeat isn’t written in law, but it is foundational in a democracy. Inciting insurrection is forbidden by law, and when a president does that, impeachment is the proper remedy.
There are others who followed Trump’s lead in challenging the results of the elections, including the many members of Congress who voted against certifying the vote of key states. Where in so doing laws were broken, justice must be served. But otherwise, it will be up to the voters to decide whether these members should continue to represent them.
While the immediate threat to our democracy appears to have been averted and the rule of law likely will be reestablished in this instance, restoring faith in our democracy will require addressing some of the deeper flaws in our system.
But there are other remedies that Congress can enact to strengthen democracy. These include making voting registration automatic and ensuring voting itself is easier, by extending early voting, simplifying absentee and mail voting and opening additional sites for people to cast their ballot in person. Open primaries and independent redistricting commissions could help make elections more competitive. Increasing financial transparency and reducing money in politics would also help increase the power of individual voters.
Free and fair elections, and abiding by their results, are the bedrock of democracy. That is what America has championed for decades abroad, and what many around the world have aspired to themselves. When American democracy falters, as it nearly did last week, the impact is felt all around the world. And so will the collective effort to restore democracy that must now begin.